An Interview with ‘Pert Near Sandstone, local Bluegrass supergroup, plays State Fair September 2nd


Fiddler, mandolinist and founding member Nate Sipe told Twin Cities Media’s Emily Meenan about ‘Pert Near Sandstone’s working together, upcoming new music, and memories of the haunted house at the State Fair.

Catch them on September 2nd at the State Fair, and keep your eyes peeled for other interviews with State Fair artists coming soon!

As a whole, ‘Pert Near Sandstone clearly has a great stage presence and works together fantastically. How did you meet and come together? Did you always somehow deep down know that you’d be part of an awesome old-timey bluegrass band?

The founding members of Pert Near, Kevin, J, Ryan and myself, were old acquaintances from high school. We separately gravitated towards traditional acoustic music from our rock, jazz and country backgrounds over the years, mainly due to the portability of the instruments and accessibility of the music. Meeting up back in the Twin Cities after college and various life distractions, what started as an informal living room jam turned into a regular weekly practice and collected a sizeable assortment of folk and bluegrass tunes. Stealing time from other active projects, we decided to begin playing coffee shops and eventually bars and festivals. It was too much fun to ever stop, so we’ve kept it up for 11 years now and it’s grown a life of its own. The familiarity and ease of communication you can achieve on stage with old friends can be magical. We are very much like brothers, even where we are stubborn and disagree, we can eventually come to see each other’s point of view.

All of the musicians and recording engineers we have worked with over the years have influenced us with new ideas or showed how and how not to tour with longevity. We are blessed to have the musical community that we have, and a whole network of support from performers and patrons that makes what we are doing possible. With the influence of all the bands and troubadours we encountered, we realized playing bluegrass and old-time could be more than a hobby, and we perused touring more.

The Twin Cities alone has such a vibrant scene, swinging from the coat tails of the West Bank Minneapolis folk revival veterans who are still active. The more we played the more we connected with other musicians out there doing the same thing, trying new songs and picking up traditional tunes from each other. The American song bag consists of confiding letters to the future from a shadowy and mysterious past-  we were content to carry it down the road a while. I felt we were doing the honorable work of helping the music along until the next folks picked it up, maybe also introduce traditional music to others and add a few original tunes into the mix. The real reason we’ve been doing this for over a decade is good times and good friends. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that in sight.

You have been making music together as a band for over ten years. What notable differences are there now in both the music making progress and when playing live shows?

We support each other like a family, maybe a sort of circus family living on the high wire at times, but mostly we get along and travel well together. That keeps the music fun to play, the energy high and upholds a platform to work on new songs. Pert Near has maintained that living room jam style of performance, not too slick but serious enough to cut the mustard. In this format it is not unusual to try new songs on stage that we have never performed together. After years of playing we have become able to read each other on stage and trust each other like human crash pads. If one of us is off in a given night, it can make performing challenging, but we have developed a decent ability to listen to each other and support the music without much hubris or rock-n’-roll-syndrome. There are shows I would rather forget about, but if there’s a chance to explore the music differently it is a welcome part of the show and mistakes in a live setting can also teach you something you might not have tried otherwise.

There are also recorded songs that need to ferment further before they are ready to appear on an album, but it’s always a treat to experiment in the studio. Our first few albums were approached more like documentation of the songs we were playing at the time while we remained largely a performance band. It was our prerogative to achieve a live sound on our albums. Our last two albums especially have been dominantly new material that written and arranged in marathon sessions that extended into the studio with songs that our audience haven’t yet heard, and we didn’t perform until the albums were released. We have been taught to be a studio band and now enjoy more than ever exploring new sounds and ideas with the music. The experience we have organically developed playing with each other makes our fairly eclectic styles of writing congeal pretty well.  On each of our albums you can find sounds of bluegrass, old-time dance tunes, ragtime, blues, country, and world folk music, but we hope it all sounds like Pert Near music.

The challenge is now to push outwards and achieve new sounds and execute new ideas. It is always fun to do things in the studio we would not or could not do on tour, such as add an organ or pedal steel, a kick drum or three mandolins layered on top of each other. We just recorded a song of Justin’s where most of us swapped instruments and it turned out way better than we assumed it would and will be appearing on our next album.

You had an album come out in 2014. Is there any new music on the radar for you guys??

Yes. We just finished recording an album this summer and are releasing it in at First Ave on October 28th. We are calling it “Discovery of Honey” which contains all original compositions by the four songwriters in the band. All of our other albums have either been solely traditional songs or a mix of those and our original songs.  It was recorded and co-produced by our original fiddler, Ryan Young of Trampled By Turtles, in his recording studio. He recorded our first two albums when he was still in our group so it was like a full circle back to the beginning. We learned how to do this together, so it was very natural environment to write and arrange the new songs in, relaxed enough to reach for new sounds but still get quality recordings. We are all really happy with what we put together for this project and are excited to start playing the new songs.

You’ve appeared on many festivals and shows, one of those being A Prairie Home Companion. What was that like? What’s your favorite segment on the show?

APHC was the place I first heard bluegrass and western swing, priming my palate at a formative age that allowed me to fall in love with folk and roots later on. It was a dream come true to be on that show that has had such an influence roots music, in a legendary theater, on a stage that my local and national heroes stood and were broadcast into the home speakers of millions of people round the world.

It was a surreal feeling, even after being on community radio man times prior.  It is a vestige of a bygone era in entertainment, the old time variety show with outstanding music, stories and humor. It was great to see the actors reading the scripts with the sound effects live, and how fluidly the whole show unfolds to the syndicated minute – absolutely expert at what they do. It was down in the greenroom that Garrison told us he was also from Brooklyn Park, where Kevin, J and myself grew up. We talked about the corn fields that we remember as children, now long gone. That show will always remind me of my younger days, a less complicated time in life.

You’ll be playing the Minnesota State Fair this year. Have you played the State Fair before? What are you most looking forward to about this opportunity?

The MN State Fair is always one of our favorite gigs, if not the favorite gig. This will be our 6th time performing at the fair, but our first time at the new West End Market. I am looking forward to checking out that new space. There is so much to see and do at the fair, eating food and people watching, not to mention all the other music that comes through. I always enjoy the Space Needle and a quick spin through one of the fun houses no matter how old I get. The State Fair is as much a part of being Minnesotan as ice fishing and goulash.

You guys are Minnesota natives. Have you always gone to the State Fair? What are some of your favorite memories and things that you look forward to during the fair? What’s your favorite fair food?

One of my oldest memories is getting scared out of my wits in the haunted house. I lightly held the strangers shirt in front of me as my sister and I made our way through the dark corridors of horror. I have rarely missed going to the fair at least once a summer since I was a young kid. I would love the Shriner’s breakfast and the giant turkey legs or pickle on a stick. These days I enjoy the jambalaya at Café Caribe with a cold beer and some rocking good music.

Finally, what should both longtime fans and newcomers expect and look forward to for your performance at the Minnesota State Fair this year?

With Pert Near Sandstone’s new album about to be released, we will likely play several of the new songs. This coming album is full of fun songs begging to be played live, and we are still watching crowds respond to the new tunes and trying out different arrangements. With two

90 minute sets over the two days, that will give us a chance to play a bunch of songs we cannot get through in one night. Will not repeat more than a couple songs, so we encourage folks to see us both nights for totally different shows. People can also make requests on our social media sites. It is going to be a blast!